The Department of Theatre Arts at Utah State University opened its 2019-20 season last weekend with the contemporary drama Civics and Humanities for Non-Majors.
That title only sounds like a dry, academic exercise. The practically hot-off-the-presses script by Jeff Talbot is actually full of fireworks brought to all-too-real life by a talented cast of young performers directed by Shawn Fisher.
Civics and Humanities for Non-Majors is a bitterly frank rite-of-passage tale about college-age idealism running headlong into the reality of conflicting attitudes and emotions. Its playwright emphasized the universality of that theme by having two storylines, separated by decades in time, playing out on the same stage simultaneously. The avowed goal of each gathering of students was to launch a political/social initiative addressing the burning issues of their respective eras. One of those attempts fails; the other retains a slim measure of hope when the lights go down.
Talbot’s perhaps overly ambitious script manages to at least touch on every hot-button issue in our pop culture – sex, religion, homosexuality, gender politics, racism, sexism, abortion and (of course) Donald Trump. Some of those touches are surprisingly deft, while others are as blatant as aggravated assault with a baseball bat. The characters’ seemingly endless bickering is deliberately shrill, tone-deaf and annoying – as is so much of our public discourse today.
Using the play’s storyline set in 1976, Talbot also subtly reminds us that the tone of our public discourse hasn’t changed all that much in the past four decades. What has changed is that digital technology and social media now allow us to safely huddle in personal echo chambers that only buttress our own opinions and attitudes.
Given material so meaty and topical, it’s not surprising that the performances of the USU cast were excellent. After all, they were young people portraying young people – they ought to be convincing. But their characterizations displayed maturity and vulnerability that was surprising.
Mollee Barse and Blake Bundy were superb as the self-appointed leaders of the ill-fated student groups in 2016 and 1976 respectively. Their relationship – touchingly revealed in a really intimate vignette – linked the play’s two storylines and cleverly facilitated the introduction of a biography of “old white dude” James Madison as the show’s much-needed MacGuffin.
Other cast stand-outs were Bryson LaBar and Rachel Banner. LarBar played Dexter, a wise-beyond-his-years gay student who is more interested in experiencing his newly discovered lifestyle than becoming a spokesman for it. In the alternate timeline, Ms. Banner is Dar, the nagging voice of reason in a political food-fight and a much-maligned prophet predicting the election defeat of Hillary Clinton.
Talbot’s script is so compelling that it has to share star billing with the USU cast. If that text has any weakness, it is that the script’s tone is so consistently combative that the audience is sometimes tempted to just tune-out the largely irrelevant histrionics. But Talbot also penned moments of high comedy and rare beauty that provided welcome relief from the play’s bombast.
One of those great moments came when Bundy hilariously lost his mind in mid-sentence while passionately espousing gay rights.
A lovely interlude also unfolded when Ms. Barse and Kaija Strong shared a vignette set in the waiting room of an abortion clinic. As strangers meeting in frightening circumstances, their desperately casual conversation was punctuated with uncomfortable silences and hysterical laughter that just rang true – it was a beautiful moment of pure acting.
Needless to say, Civics and Humanities for Non-Majors was strong subject matter for serious audiences. But the USU Department of Theatre Arts and its students seem to be more than ready to take on the demands of that kind of theater.